Encounters with De Palma

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow on their new documentary.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

De Palma directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach enjoy the show!
De Palma directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach enjoy the show! Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the press conference for De Palma, one of the New York Film Festival's engaging Special Events, directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, in a conversation with selection committee member Amy Taubin of Film Comment, disclosed that on that particular day Paltrow considered Blow Out to be Brian De Palma's best movie and Carlito's Way one of his favourites - but that changes. Baumbach cites Body Double and The Untouchables as his first encounters with De Palma in the cinema, an entry way into the world of grown-ups that "felt like I was going to be in on some kind of secret."

Amy Taubin with Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow - De Palma press conference
Amy Taubin with Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow - De Palma press conference Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The eye-opening documentary follows the filmmaker's career, film by film in chronological order, with De Palma talking about each individual movie. During the press conference I asked Paltrow and Baumbach about Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock, the single, possibly greatest influence on De Palma's style. They spoke about their long friendship with their subject and the joy in revisiting the unique narratives.

Here are some of the highlights.

Noah Baumbach: We both knew we were going to cover things that we already knew the answers to but it was also so much more thorough than any kind of casual conversation, that also we were going into all this new territory…. In terms of what we were interested in, he was totally available. We wanted to talk about filmmaking and process. It wasn't a gossipy conversation. I guess it wasn't about trying to get answers out of him that we already had in our head.

Jake Paltrow: I guess, I think the best [De Palma movie] is probably Blow Out, if I have to give an answer. But that's my answer today. I don't know if I would say that another day… The one that was on my mind most recently was Carlito. That I find myself revisiting a lot lately.

Noah Baumbach on De Palma:
Noah Baumbach on De Palma: "I think the movie for me is also about directing, beyond Brian." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Noah Baumbach: Our interest in it was in some ways, so personal and very much about Brian and our relationship with him, that putting it together as a movie was also discovering these other narratives, this story of the film industry that is also kind of baked into Brian's experience. The fact that he also has worked pretty much in every possible way - he's worked independently, he's worked on huge studio movies, he's done very personal movies within the studio system, he's come onto movies after another director left them - he's really done so many versions of what can happen professionally in Hollywood… I think the movie for me is also about directing, beyond Brian.

It's about filmmaking, about having a career… He waged so many battles and won. You also have to see how to have this kind of longevity even in potentially better times in the Seventies, there were still compromises. Even Brian De Palma has to figure out a way to work within the system. I found it both comforting and interesting to see him articulate this as well as he does.

For Baumbach as a little boy, De Palma movies had a meaning before he ever saw one. The way they were talked about represented the mysteries of the world of adults.

Noah Baumbach: I remember hearing about Brian's movies before I saw them because my parents loved his movies and would talk about them a lot. There's something about even the way you talk about a Brian De Palma movie that's kind of shocking and alluring and interesting. By the time I was old enough and started seeing them, which was in the Eighties - I think maybe Body Double was the first one I saw in a theater… I saw The Untouchables also - I felt like I was going to be in on some kind of secret. It felt like the adult world in some kind of peculiar way. Some dark version of the adult world. In a way that experience of discovering his movies had this personal effect on me.

Jake Paltrow with Noah Baumbach in response to Vertigo looming large:
Jake Paltrow with Noah Baumbach in response to Vertigo looming large: "I love Brian's thing about it being a language." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And I do feel when I make my movies I am always revisiting some kind of childhood approach to the world. It can be sometimes more specific or articulated than others. So Brian for me is in a way what existed, what movies were awaiting me as I got older. Once you start seeing them, they kind of grow in your head and they don't come out. I carry so many of those images and the way I remember them. If I revisit them I am always surprised how different they might be from the way I might have remembered them. They are movies that I just love to keep watching.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Vertigo, of course, looms very large. Was there something that you discovered about Hitchcock during the making of this, during these talks with De Palma?

Jake Paltrow: I love Brian's thing about it being a language. He had such a defined style, such a defined approach to telling his stories. And to look at it that way. I love that. Brian probably is the strongest linguist … I like that he said that and it's the first time I ever thought about it that way. And I thought about it that way ever since he said it.

On the way out of the theatre, I told both of them that I was not the greatest De Palma fan, that I actually despised Passion, and that their documentary made me reconsider and curious to go back and re-watch a number of his films (not Passion, though). "That's a good reaction to have," Baumbach responded. Paltrow, when I brought up the great sense of completion due to the fact that they discuss all of his movies, confirmed that for them that was also a very important factor.

Public screening: Wednesday, September 30 at 6:00pm with the filmmakers in attendance - Alice Tully Hall.

Blow Out will be shown in the Revivals program on Wednesday, September 30 at 9:00pm - Walter Reade Theater.

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